Why Computer Labs are necessary!

In March 2009, ars technica published an interesting article entitled “When every student has a laptop, why run computer labs?”. In this article the authors discuss that given the majority of students entering some form of tertiary education (i.e. University) bring their own computer, is there a real need to run Computer Labs. So the question is is this statement true?

“Computer Lab” v “Computing Room”

Firstly as a computer science major I baulk at the authors use of the term Computer Lab, during my tenure as a undergraduate it was obvious that each academic discipline requires different uses of a computer. These uses are defined as follows:

  1. Resource Finding — searching various academic journals and the internet for various resources
  2. Report/Essay Writing — using <insert relevant software tools> for the creation of technical reports, essays and similar articles.
  3. Performing Assignment — use of specialist software or not to perform a series of tasks relating to a course’s assignments.
  4. Experiments — the use of computer(s) to perform a series of experiments that constitute towards either a course assignment or dissertation.
  5. Procrastination — Facebook

It is clear that the Requirements 1-3 and 5 are common to all academic disciplines, all students need to write reports, search for articles, run software and check Facebook. Requirement 4 can be seen as relating towards more specialist applications of computers needing specialist applications. From this we get the following definitions:

Computer Room: a room containing ordinary computers that allow any student from any academic discipline to fulfil requirements 1-3 and 5.

Computer Lab:  a room containing computers that have specialist software that allows  the students to perform a series of experiments in a controlled environment. These computers will most certainly contain various amounts of specialist software/hardware that will facilitate for the student to perform their experiments i.e. fulfilling requirement 4.

Students and Computer Rooms

Generally the services offered by Computer Rooms can easily be replaced by a students own computer. Obviously with most students bring their own computers the need for Computer Rooms reduces, however as the ars technica article mentioned:

“ITC understands that students need collaborative space where they can bring their laptops and mobile devices to conduct group work, especially as the curriculum becomes increasingly team- and project-based.” 

Hence the need for rooms in which students can collaborate and work together in a suitable manner.

Scientists need laboratories, especially Computer Scientists

The need for Computer Labs among the scientific disciplines vary (it is assumed that arts students don’t count), depending of their individual software needs. If the discipline requires only a handful of specialised software that are cross-platform then it can be a better option to provide academic licenses for such software (if required) to allow the students to use the software on their own machines, hence the need for a computer lab diminishes. Or if the specialised software can only be used on a specific operating system then it can be argued that a Computing Lab is required. Furthermore, for Computer Science I believe that the need for a Computing Lab is very important.

In science the need for a controlled environment with which scientists can perform experiments is paramount, it can even be said that this idea is sacrosanct. Chemists have their labs, Biologists have their labs and Medics have their dissection rooms. But this notion of a lab with respect to Computer Science is different. During my undergraduate years I had access to a series of labs in which I could perform my experiments (which required the use of several machines at once) have access to specialist operating systems and software. Yet at the universities where I am doing my masters the notion of a computing lab seems to have been heavily confused with the notion of a computing room. That is I do not have access to a sufficient controlled environment in which I can suitably perform my experiments and that existing facilities are shared among all students in the faculty and that there appears to be no dedicated lab for Computer Science Students. Hence as a computer science student, without a suitable lab my work will suffer.

Answering the Question

So is there an answer to the following:

Given the majority of students entering some form of tertiary education (i.e. University) bring their own computer, is there a real need to run Computer Labs?

The answer is simply Yes; a university should provide their students with Computing Rooms or spaces in which their students can collaborate and do their work. Yet their should also be a series of (or one) Computing Labs that are used primarily for disciplines requiring controlled computing environments i.e. Computer Science, and that these environments allow the students to perform their experiments successfully. The notion of a laboratory is sacrosanct to scientists even computer scientists.


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